HAIFA, ISRAEL – As Christians from across the globe flock to the Holy Land in time for Christmas prayers and ceremonies, some in the community in Nazareth are seeking to reaffirm the historical importance of their town by erecting a statue of Jesus that would tower more than 100 feet above the city.
The idea for the statue comes from Bishara Shlayan, a Christian merchant seaman who lives in Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus. Shlayan has seen the demographics of Nazareth change considerably in recent years, with the Christian community becoming a minority while the Muslim population has grown to 70 percent of the 80,000 residents of the northern Israeli town.
“Slowly, but surely, the Christian identity in Nazareth is beginning to disappear,” said Shlayan, noting that signs in the main square declare that “There is no power but Allah.”
The plan is for the statue of Jesus to be sit atop Mount Precipice, also known as the Mount of the Leap of the Lord, the promontory where according to Luke 4:29-30, a mob attempted to drive Jesus off the hilltop only for him to pass through them without injury. Shlayan is raising money for the project, but recently got what may be even more important backing: Israel’s Tourism Minister Uzi Landau gave him the green light, saying, “Start it, and we will bless it.”
“I don’t believe in statues, but it is a symbol of love and peace,” Shlayan told The Jerusalem Post. “People who are against it, it comes from jealousy.”
The statue is inspired by the iconic Christ the Redeemer figure that dominates the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, but would be even taller, said Shlayan.
In addition to honoring the town’s most famous resident, the statue could prove a boon to tourism. Last year, some 3.5 million tourists visited Israel, of which 58 percent were Christians. Mount Precipice is the starting pointing of the already popular Gospel Trail, a 37-mile pilgrim route that opened in 2011, winding down from the heights of Nazareth and ending at Capernaum, 680 feet below sea level, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Shlayan’s dream is not shared by the Muslim majority, which has long considered his outspoken Christianity troublesome. But he has worked to build ties with Israel’s Jewish population. Together with Father Gabriel Naddaf, a high-profile Greek Orthodox priest, Shlayan created the B’nei Habrit Christian Party of Israel. Although yet to be officially registered, the party has encouraged young Christians to join the Israeli military as a route to full integration into Israeli society. In 2013, the first year of their campaign, the number of Christians volunteering for military service has risen to 120 from 35, while the number volunteering for civilian national service has more than doubled to 500.
Muslims and Christians have co-existed in Nazareth for many years, but lately many of Nazareth’s Christians have left to live elsewhere, uneasy at the changing face and apparent new direction of their town. In 2002, following a two-year campaign by local Christians as well as the Vatican, the White House and an array of both Catholic and Protestant organizations, a controversial plan to build a new mosque alongside the Basilica of the Annunciation was eventually cancelled.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com